My company is small, and most of us normally work together in a small office in an equally small downtown. We are a wonderfully tight-knit team.
Naturally, the pandemic has made working together in confined, erm, cozy spaces impossible, and we’ve had to improvise. Lunch on Tuesdays is now reserved for a weekly show-and-tell video call. We’ve met one another’s children, partners, and chickens. Birdtrude was a crowd favorite.
The mental break is fun, but a 30-minute virtual meetup doesn’t replace what we had in the office, and I don’t just mean the chatter and familiarity of people who see one another every day. As we’ve come to learn, there’s a difference between seeing that your coworkers are in one piece onscreen and knowing how they’re coping in real life. It’s all too easy for the veneer we see on platforms like Instagram to carry over to Zoom calls and Google Hangouts.
This makes managing a remote team challenging. When you ask “How is everyone doing?” the responses are “good,” “not too bad,” and “can’t complain.” You don’t know what burdens people are bearing, and how you can best support them when every weekly update sounds like a mildly optimistic weather report.
That’s why, a few weeks ago, my cofounder and I decided to have the conversation outright, skipping our usual spotlight to invite each person to answer one question: “What do you need more of right now?”
A team of parents, nonparents, singles, and couples, the answers were both universal and individual: The majority of us are more tired than usual, parents want more alone time (I believe the quote was, “I would just like five minutes without someone saying my name”), and clearer answers about the future of our world would, of course, ease anxiety. Many of us miss vacations, too. A trip to the beach, a trip to anywhere besides our living rooms, would be welcome.
Yet the biggest takeaway of the discussion wasn’t that I, a CEO of a startup, should single-handedly reopen Walt Disney World. It was that everyone is struggling in some way, and that we as a company need to acknowledge that if we want to work better together in the future.
It’s one thing to hear a fun story about your coworkers’ lives or to meet their chickens, but in terms of relationship- and culture-building, the only way to create an atmosphere of understanding is to push for the more personal, perhaps slightly uncomfortable, conversation that expands your worldview.
My company has flexible work hours and unlimited PTO. As a manager, I do my best to underline how important it is for everyone to use these benefits and to come to me if they need something. Besides that, is there anything I or anyone can really do about the pandemic?
No, unfortunately, many needs are out of our control, and an exclusive company retreat to Disney is, for the time being, off the table.
But not every meeting ends in action items. If I want to lead my team through a crisis, then it’s best we continue to listen to one another. Empathy is the best solution right now, and from where I sit, which is inside my house for the foreseeable future, it’s a pretty good one.
Ursula Mead is the cofounder and CEO of InHerSight.